NEAR KIRKUK, Iraq — The ISIS fighters left in a hurry. Or at least those who could.
Dozens of others never stood a chance. They were obliterated in a wave of U.S. and coalition airstrikes that hit checkpoints and positions they’d held for months. The strikes began suddenly, then lasted for three days.
At the end of the assault on this embattled part of northern Iraq, thousands of Kurdish fighters moved forward two days ago and occupied the ISIS lines. The extremists' rule in the area was over. They left behind their broken sunglasses and cigarette packets but they left more than that.
They laced the area with booby trap bombs; many across roads, dozens in buildings, two that destroyed bridges and one that failed to detonate under a bridge. The Kurdish fighters paid tribute, if a little grudgingly, to the Islamists' skill at making and hiding crude but very deadly bombs. Several Kurds paid for their carelessness in attempting to clear booby-trapped ISIS buildings with their lives.
Next to a broken bridge, an ISIS checkpoint building lay abandoned, the words of the prophet Mohammed scrawled on its walls in the trademark ISIS colors of black and white.
“Telling the truth will bring rewards from Allah”, one sign read. ISIS had few rewards from their time ruling this area near Kirkuk.
The Kurds were clear about one thing. They could not have driven ISIS away without the airstrikes. The holes in the roads and the mangled ISIS vehicles showed the ferocity of the warplanes’ attacks. The Kurds were jubilant; they had pushed ISIS out across a broad front and they believed the Islamists would never come back.
But ISIS hasn’t gone far. Three miles down the road we came to the new frontline. Two heaped, dirt roadblocks are now all that separate the Kurds from the new ISIS position; their black flag flying defiantly in the distance.
It’s clear however that ISIS is being squeezed. Near Kirkuk, by Kurds and coalition airpower. Further South, in Tikrit by Iraqi forces. Almost certainly the two are no coincidence. The Iraqis say they did not co-ordinate their assault on Tikrit with the United States, but the coalition is using classic military tactics; push the enemy from a city and cut off their retreat. ISIS fighters leaving Tikrit, if they ever do leave, will find themselves boxed in to a smaller and smaller area between two big cities, with little means of escape.
The battle for Tikrit is very different from the assault by the Kurds. It’s massive; at least 24,000 troops, according to Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Of those, he says 20,000 are from various Shi’ite militia groups. They in turn are trained, armed and backed by Iran. Iranian commanders are on the ground in Tikrit helping them, including one of the most famous fighters from Tehran, the head of the Revolutionary Guards elite force, Qassem Suleimani.
Facing them are a force of several thousand ISIS fighters, according to U.S. officials, although estimating exact numbers is risky. For ISIS, Tikrit is symbolic, as the birthplace of the Sunni leader and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Losing Tikrit would be a blow to them and the momentum that has rolled them into several major cities in nine months, the biggest of which is Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city. If ISIS is driven from Tikrit, the next target for Iraqi forces is Mosul, an assault that is likely sometime this year.
So the battle for Tirkit is raging and it is decisive. Iraqi forces have pushed past the suburbs and are now engaging ISIS on roads towards the city center. They believe they will take Tikrit within days. Dempsey is equally certain that, however long it takes, Tikrit will fall.
The battle further north between ISIS and the Kurds is less intense but no less important. The Islamists' Caliphate in Kurdish Iraq hasn’t lasted long. Dislodging them from the rest of Arab Iraq and then destroying them will a longer and deadlier task.